How BroadReach is using analytics to improve healthcare in Africa
Many parts of Africa are no stranger to shortages, be they a lack of food and water in areas stricken by drought or conflict, or of medicines and materials due to logistical problems.Less well known, however, is a shortage of data - at least the sort of comparative data that allows authorities to make informed decisions about their healthcare systems
It is this gap that the social enterprise BroadReach Healthcare is aiming to bridge, providing an easy-to-use system by which administrators can compare key metrics across multiple facilities and districts to identify those interventions and clinics that that are most (or least) successful.
Funded in part by the US overseas aid programme, USAID, and partly by selling analytical services and consultancy to pharmaceutical corporations, BroadReach works in 20 African countries integrating data from public sources, such as census results, with clinical information from state and private healthcare providers.
Recently in South Africa it launched a dashboard called the Health Command Centre (HCC). Essentially this is a SaaS analytics service with the Tibco Spotfire analytics and data visualisation package embedded within it to allow non-experts to drill down into the data. HCC is offered on a non-profit basis for use by health sector managers, funders, partner organisations and policy makers in those regions supported by USAID and other donors.
"We work with 1,000 different clinics across South Africa," co-founder Dr John Sargent told Computing. "Our whole aim is to improve the quality of healthcare across all of these 1,000 clinics."This will be achieved by identifying best practices from the top performing clinics and applying them to the worst, but this is only possible once the root causes of performance issues are understood. It's all about collecting and analysing data in a timely fashion.
Previously, he said, data would be gathered and entered into spreadsheets and crunched by armies of administrators to produce rankings of facilities, but with the HCC most of this is automated. "Instead of a static report being delivered to government, now everyone in the government and USAID and our own people can play around with the same information on mobiles and desktops almost in real time. It's been a huge breakthrough. "Because it is based on standard off-the-shelf technologies, HCC was rolled out across South Africa in just three months. Sargent sees its role as "shining a light on the healthcare system" by "delivering the right information to the right people at the right time".
Among the aspects of the health system that HCC illuminates are the geographic distribution of pharmacies, clinics and schools; access to piped water; staffing statistics; nurse training levels; child health metrics; TB and HIV treatment performance; the number of consulting rooms; and employment statistics.
Combining these numbers enables decision makers to gain an insight into the social, political and logistical reasons behind clinical performance figures.
Interventions like HCC have been made possible in part by the rapid rise in the use of mobile technology across Africa, although coverage is still limited in rural areas.
"Our hope is that in the next five years it's going to be even better," Sargent said. "In the future, the majority of our solution is going to be mobile-based."
But however good the technology, analytics is worthless if the underlying data is not trustworthy, and Sargent says the biggest effort has always gone into collecting and ensuring the quality the data. Ultimately, it is the sharing of that data that he believes will really drive change.
"I really do believe that information sharing and networks can have a positive social impact, be that on health or education, or other fields," Sargent said.